For the fourth year running now, we’ve attended a Plated Landscape dinner put on by Chef Ben Bebenroth and Spice of Life Catering. This year’s event was made special by the fact that, not only was it the first dinner of the season, but it was the first one ever held at the Bebenroths’ new farm in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, christened Spice Acres.
S and I were joined by most of our mushroom-hunting group from last year, as well as about 60 others. Pre-dinner festivities involved a beet-infused vodka cocktail, cucumber gazpacho, and mushroom-pork pot stickers, all enjoyed while resting on velvet couches placed upon a carpet of needles within the cozy confines of a small stand of old pines. With live music to boot.
After the hors d’
The first course was a head cheese tea sandwich, with fresh bread and butter pickles on brioche. Head cheese probably scares away a number of people by name alone, but if you didn’t tell anyone what it was, they’d most likely find it delicious. It’s like a pate made from the meat of the pig head, which may be a turn-off if you’re actually eating it off the head (although I did that once with no problems). But, the meat from the head is some of the most flavorful and tender, and it’s a way of using the entire animal. Remember that for every boneless, skinless plastic-wrapped pork loin in the grocery store, there’s about 250 pounds (or more) of “other” stuff, and a key component of sustainability is wasting as little as possible.
The second stop on the tour was a greenhouse in which a variety of herbs, greens, and other seedlings were getting off to a strong start. The edible portion of the stop was a carnitas taco with pickled red onion, salsa verde, and some pots of cilantro for a pick-your-own garnish.
The third course was a crudite of beautiful fresh vegetables alongside a spring onion hummus and “compesto,” a puree of various vegetable parts that would normally be destined for the compost pile, like carrot and radish tops. Simple and beautiful.
We dodged raindrops for the first hour or so, but the occasional light sprinkle didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. Because after all, the rain is the lifeblood of this and every farm, and the bounty through which we were walking would be nonexistent without it. That’s not to say that we wouldn’t mind two whole days without getting rained on… But mostly, the weather cooperated, and we were able to enjoy the tour.
After the walking portion of the evening, we perambulated to the barn to commence with the rest of the dinner. Another change from prior years’ meals was that the main course was served family-style. Good for me, bad for whoever was sitting to my right… Although I shared, I promise. It being in a barn, we had some company for dinner in the form of bats. I didn’t see any flying around while we were there, which would have been awkward, but they did serenade us throughout the meal.
The sit-down meal was good summertime, country fare: fresh tomato, cucumber and feta salad; baked beans with bacon and brown sugar; fresh bread with whipped lard; and pork loin, grilled slab bacon, whole-grain mustard and Memphis sauce. I cleaned my plate, in case there was any doubt.
Dessert was a fresh strawberry shortcake that incorporate some interesting sweet and savory elements like feta, fennel, and rye. A unique and delicious twist on a classic.
It’s always fun to enjoy a meal close to its point of origin, and it’s especially significant in a time when so many people have no clue where their food comes from. To eat food on the farm where it was grown is a distinctive experience – as I’ve mentioned in the past, the price tag is not for everyone, but to do this one time a year is well worth it to us. Looking forward to next year!